LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rick Pitino walked onto the practice floor on Thursday and couldn't quite believe what he saw: more than a dozen healthy players on the court.
It's a rare sight for the injury-ravaged Cardinals, who have somehow remained competitive in the Big East despite a bench that's had almost as many players in street clothes as jerseys and shorts in recent weeks.
Pitino expects power forward Rakeem Buckles and freshman center Gorgui Dieng to be available on Saturday when 16th-ranked Louisville (18-6, 7-4 Big East) hosts 12th-ranked Syracuse (20-5, 7-5).
Buckles hasn't played since Dec. 27 after breaking his left index finger in practice while Dieng has sat out the past four games following a nasty spill in a win over West Virginia on Jan. 26.
The reinforcements couldn't have come at a better time for the Cardinals, who looked exhausted in overtime in a loss to No. 8 Notre Dame on Wednesday.
Louisville had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds then let the Irish score the first 14 points of the extra session.
"I think our guys are really tired mentally after losing that game," Pitino said. "They were very disappointed in themselves."
Their coach, however, was not. Pitino has remained upbeat all season, knowing his team is overachieving. The injuries have forced him to get creative with the lineups, with surprising results. He doesn't expect there to be an adjustment period with Buckles returning, crediting his players for being so adaptable.
"Chemistry is always going to be great with this team," Pitino said. "Gorgui and Rak are guys that are not only low maintenance, no ego, very humble people, but everybody was rooting for them to get back. The attitude and chemistry are always going to be there. Now it's the execution."
Buckles called the weeks watching helplessly from the bench in a black sweat suit unbearable. He was the team's leading rebounder at the time of the injury (7.5 per game) but went more than a month without even touching a basketball to give the five pins inserted in his broken finger time to go to work.
He'll wear a sleeve and some tape over the digit against the Orange but doesn't believe it will hinder his ability to grab the ball with both hands or shoot. Even if it did, he admits he probably wouldn't tell anybody.
"It was something, worst part of my life, sitting and watching," Buckles said. "I knew we were winning but it still hurts."
The losses were even worse.
"Every game we'd lose, I'd be down for a few days thinking it's my fault, feeling like if I'd have played we would have won," Buckles said.
Louisville thrived in his absence even though Pitino allows he "kept waiting for the bottom to fall out."
It never did, but he acknowledges the bottom may have been teetering after the loss to Notre Dame.
The Cardinals led throughout the first half, faltered for a stretch in the second before rallying to tie the game in the final minutes.
The late-game heroics that defined wins over Connecticut, West Virginia and Marquette failed to materialize this time, and the defeat left Louisville drained.
The narrow margin also magnified a bizarre sequence at the end of the first half when soft-spoken forward Kyle Kuric was hit with a technical foul after dunking over Notre Dame's Scott Martin just before the buzzer.
Referees ruled Kuric taunted Martin by glancing at him after the play. Pitino called it the most "absurd" technical he's ever seen.
"You see guys pounding their chest, pulling their uniforms out, and Kyle Kuric is the antithesis of all of that," Pitino said. "But the referee doesn't know he's a mime."
Pitino said the call had little effect on the outcome, though Buckles, who watched the game from his dorm room after undergoing treatment earlier in the day, just shook his head.
"I guess you can't look at nobody after you dunk," he said. "I guess you've got to cover your eyes."
It's a motion Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has done at times over the past month as the Orange have squandered an 18-0 start by losing five out of their past seven.
Pitino, a former assistant under Boeheim in the late-1970s, remains wary. The only thing predictable about the Big East this season has been the unpredictability. There are eight teams either 7-4 or 6-5 in conference play, and things only promise to get more jumbled as February turns into March.
"It's just a tough league," Pitino said. "It's not that they're up and down, it's just that it's a tough league and you don't know where your next win's going to come from. I think (Georgetown coach) John Thompson III said it best, 'The next tough game is the next game,' and that's the way this league is."